When I was in the first grade, I remember crying almost every day. My teacher had a cool demeanor; the room always seemed chilly, cloaked in this strange blue-gray light; and I didn’t like reading aloud, in front of others. By the age of 6, others had already labeled me as “sensitive.”
They were right: To this day, I’m still very sensitive—and not just emotionally. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in my late teen years, a condition characterized by widespread chronic pain and a battery of related conditions—irritable bowel syndrome, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, interstitial cystitis—all connected to my hypersensitivity and an overactive nervous system. So it really didn’t come as a surprise when I eventually discovered that I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), psychologically speaking, as well.
According to the work of psychotherapist, researcher, and author of The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron, PhD, an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population are characterized as highly sensitive people. HSPs are those who are hyper-attuned to the world around them—and constantly aroused by it. A highly sensitive person is unusually responsive to stimuli in their environment, whether it’s their significant other’s hurtful words, the bright patterns of wallpaper, noise from a neighboring worker, or stress in their household. What is “moderately arousing” or just a little stimulating for someone who isn’t highly sensitive might be deeply unsettling to an HSP—for instance, the jerking of a roller-coaster or an argument with a spouse over finances.
A highly sensitive person is unusually responsive to stimuli in their environment, whether it’s their significant other’s hurtful words, the bright patterns of wallpaper, or noise from a neighboring worker.
Dr. Aron uses an acronym—“DOES”—to describe the distinguishing traits of an HSP. While it isn’t a complete catchall for core qualities of an HSP, it’s a great starting point when thinking about whether you, a friend, or a loved one is highly sensitive. (Want to know if you’re an HSP? Take Dr. Aron’s online test to find out.)
DOES: The mental anatomy a highly sensitive person
D: Depth of processing. Whether it’s a via travel experience to a new country or teasing out what a certain symptom means in the context of your health, everyone processes information…literally, all the time. HSPs process on a deeper level, though, finding meaning in a pattern or symbols, comparing current events to past experiences, and cementing feelings into their memory. This quality lends HSPs heightened intuition and recall, but also a tendency to read between the lines and overthink.
O: Overstimulation. HSPs pick up on a lot of stimuli, so they tend to reach their capacity quicker, not dealing well with excess chaos in their environment. They get tired in social settings and need alone time to recharge. A noisy concert or city may overwhelm them, and packing their day full of activities will probably prove too much for their energy. This is because they’re overstimulated often, and are more sensitive to the common stimuli of everyday living.
E: Emotional reactivity. HSPs react more strongly to the positive and negative experiences in their lives; their highs are higher and their lows are lower. They might feel overwhelmed with joy when they win an award, but be deeply and intensely saddened when they’re in conflict with their partner. “E,” Dr. Aron says, is also code for “empathy.” That’s because HSPs aren’t only attuned to their own emotional world; they also quickly pick up on the feelings of others, and often end up feeling those sensations themselves. This means they may personally feel anger when someone gets treated unfairly at work or proud when their child reaches a milestone at school.
S: Sensing the subtle. HSPs pick up on subtle differences and details that others may miss. Maybe they taste a hint of strawberry and a note of cocoa in a glass of wine when their significant other missed both entirely. Or maybe they notice when a friend gets even the smallest of hair trims. An HSP also might pick up on a little shift in a person’s mood. For instance, let’s say a couple has been fighting but trying to mask their issues in front of others. An HSP will sense something is up.
The (many) benefits of being an HSP
We HSPs may opt to check out early from a bright, noisy party, or to seek personal space after a big fight. But, those traits don’t make us flawed. While many highly sensitive people are looked down upon—being told to “feel less,” or not cry, or focus only on what’s in front of them—the gifts we bring to the world are crucial. These include:
- Better at spotting and sidestepping errors
- Score high marks in conscientiousness, making them great partners, friends, roommates, and coworkers
- Able to think about subjects deeply, and make interesting connections
- Great at understanding people and their emotions
- Can learn without conscious awareness that they’re learning due to their natural processing skills
- Great at tasks that require fine motor movements
- Creative thinkers
- Strong intuition
So, if someone tells you to “stop being so sensitive,” feel free to let them know that you’re great as you are. Your sensitivity is a defining trait that makes you you, and those in your life are lucky to benefit from your conscientiousness, depth, and creativity. And if you know an HSP, give them a little extra love because of their sensitivities instead of feeling impatient toward them. This will only further confirm to them that their characteristics can be positive.
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